Should Women Be Able to Abort a Fetus Just Because It’s Female? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Emma just posted a piece on the provocative issue of sex-selective abortion, pegged to a recently passed law in Indiana banning the killing of a fetus based on its “race, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, or diagnosis or potential diagnosis of the fetus having Down syndrome or any other disability.” Such abortions raise a lot of ethical quandaries among pro-choice progressives, especially advocates for the disabled. As Emma puts it:

Should couples be able to abort their female fetuses—and it’s almost always female fetuses—in the hopes of having the boy they really wanted? Should a mom, ashamed at having a mixed-race baby, be able to abort because of race?

… or because of sexual orientation, if a “gay gene” is ever discovered? Terri, a member of the Atlantic reader group TAD, doesn’t see any quandaries here:

Advocates of the Indiana law want to get into the weeds to make people uncomfortable in their defenses of specific circumstances in order to piecemeal restrict abortion and thus set precedent for even further restriction. It isn’t an argument worth having. The answer is simple: Abortion is no one’s business but the woman and her doctor.

Responding to Terri, another reader worries that sex-selective abortion could be a slippery slope to eugenics, aided by the increased use of genetic engineering technology (such as CRISPR, previously covered in Notes):

It’s not the weeds. Technology has enabled people to choose to abort because of sex, disability, selective reduction (not wanting the hassle/expense of twins—“eenie meenie, miny ... go ahead and kill THAT one). Soon we will add more knowable features. Children are rapidly becoming more like a customizable product. If the DNA isn’t for a strapping, blonde, healthy son just abort and try again. It’s not coincidence that [early 20th century birth-control activist] Margaret Sanger was a racist eugenicist.

This reader makes a key distinction:

I don’t see the problem with people selectively choosing which genes they want to pass on (or introduce, for that matter)—as long as it’s their choice. The problem comes in when people are coerced into it.

What do you think about this controversial issue? Drop us an email to sound off. Another reader thinks this is all a theoretical debate:

They have laws against sex-selective abortion in a few countries, but it’s pretty much unenforceable, because people will just lie about why they’re having an abortion. The only way would be to ban ultrasounds and pre-natal testing so parents are in dark about the sex or potential health problems of the fetus. That is probably what Indiana wishes to do but can’t.

Of course, in America it’s a non-starter because it directly contradicts Roe v Wade and the criteria therein. It’s also a “solution” in search of a problem. Sex-selective abortion isn’t a problem in America and gender-ratios aren’t being skewed.

Statistics for sex-selective abortions in the U.S. are hard to come by, but there is some evidence backing the reader’s claim that “gender-ratios aren’t being skewed.” The link Emma used for asserting that “it’s almost always female fetuses” leads to a report that doesn’t include figures from the U.S., “only numbers from societies where the problem is widespread,” as the authors put it. For more perspective on sex-selective abortions among Americans, Sujatha Jesudason and Anat Shenker-Osorio wrote a 2012 piece for RH Reality Check that was featured on our site:

The extent of sex-selective practices in the U.S. is hard to assess, since it’s rarely something people will admit to doing. But we can make an educated guess by observing alterations in expected sex ratios. If nature has its way, women will likely give birth to 100 girls for every 102 to 106 boys (for a ratio of 1.02 to 1.06 boys per girl). And among first-time parents in the U.S., that's exactly what we see.

However, as birth order rises, apparently so does selection -- at least, in certain ethnic groups. With 2000 U.S. Census data, researchers investigating Korean, Chinese, and Indian communities found that, after having one girl, parents have as many as 1.17 boys per girl when their next child is born. With two girls at home, the ratio goes up to 1.51 boys per girl for the third child (meaning 151 boys are born for each 100 girls). These skewed ratios aren’t present among other ethnic groups in America.